Apparently "duds" can mean "clothing" but also "a bomb or missile that fails to explode". How did we get to the point where two such wildly disparate things ended up on the same word?
Grammarphobia offers a few hints on the original usage on duds which from the 16th century was used to refer to ragged clothing. From there, probably the early 20th century connotation of something useless or inefficient:
In the early 1500s, the English plural “duds” also came to mean ragged clothing, according to the dictionary, and in the early 1900s the singular “dud” took on the sense of an inefficient or useless person or thing.
- Here’s an example from the Jan. 28, 1908, issue of the Westminster Gazette for the useless sense: “A ‘dud’ car is a worthless contraption.”
In World War I, Chambers says, the word “dud” came to mean “a shell which failed to explode; hence, failure.”
The earliest example for the military sense in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Between the Lines, a 1915 book about the war by Boyd Cable, pen name of Ernest Ewart: “One of these [shells] was a dud an’ didn’t burst.”
The OED’s first example for “dud” used in reference to a human failure is from the Sept. 1, 1920, issue of Punch: “He … has … been irritated by his school-boy son derisively addressing him as an ‘old dud.’ ”